[Review] ‘THE VAST OF NIGHT’ signals close encounters, paranoia with innovation over flashy effects

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE VAST OF NIGHT

Rated PG-13, 89 minutes.
Director: Andrew Patterson
Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton and Mark Banik

We have been blinded – blinded not by the light but by the darkness. Black holes. Dark matter. The vastness of space. Look up at the stars that penetrate the night sky – that is, if you can see the stars at all – and realize that this is just a fraction of what’s “out there.” For STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry space was the final frontier. But before Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the USS Enterprise could take flight, Rod Serling pushed beyond the boundaries of space by having audiences think into another dimension: THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

That’s the impetus of THE VAST OF NIGHT.

It doesn’t take long to jump to this conclusion. Opening on a classic Philco brand television, the camera slowly zooms in as an announcer’s voice booms, “You’re entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten…” leading up to entering “Paradox Theater.” Tonight’s episode is “The Vast of Night.”

Late 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico, is the setting. Cayuga is one of those quiet, little cities where everybody knows everybody. The town is in a tizzy – the big basketball game tonight is against a major rival. That’s where you’ll find most of the residents. But as the players run up and down the court, the cheerleaders cheer, and fans pack the stands, Everett, a late-night DJ (Jake Horowitz), and Fay, a switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick), try to make heads or tails of a garbled sound and strange lights in the sky.

It’s a warm night with a slight chill of paranoia.

This was the time of duck and cover. The Cold War. The possibility of nuclear destruction. Lingering fear and dread were a by-product. THE VAST OF NIGHT plays off all of this without absolute expression. Hollywood fueled these fears with movies like THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD.

Screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger are indebted to the teleplays of Serling in fashioning an homage to his classic anthology series but without overly nudging and winking as situations play out. We have Andrew Patterson to thank for that, as he approaches the material in a way that not many filmmakers would try in making their first motion picture. Coming from shooting commercials in Oklahoma – where there is constant movement and only 30 seconds to tell a story – you’d expect quick pans and fast zooms, not long takes, slow zooms, or a black screen. Patterson is taking the audience to a different dimension, alright, but he’s not trying to get them there fast. For this ride, they must pay attention.

The introductory walk-and-talk conversation, I almost thought Aaron Sorkin was frantically typing the scene while Serling was away from his typewriter taking a smoke break. Everett, a garrulous teen with a southern twang – a perfect combo for playing records as the disc jockey for Cayuga’s WOTW radio station – is helping bashful Fay with her new voice recorder. The camera follows from behind and with side glances as Everett acts cocksure. At the same time, Fay timorously entertains him with selections from a “Scientific American” magazine and its visions of modern technology.

The plot then moves forward like those old monster movies: good-natured teens, flickering lights, calls cutting in and out, inquisitiveness, and a pulsating hum. The suspense builds as Fay operates the switchboard as the camera creeps longingly as if she were being watched. Everett takes a call at the station from someone who recognizes the sound, and the screen goes black momentarily. We lose sight, but the conversation continues. Then, the picture returns as if nothing had happened.

With a few long takes and a tracking shot that makes you wonder, “How did they do that?” THE VAST OF NIGHT is a curious incident in the nighttime that captures the imagination. This is low-fi science fiction in the best possible sense. Patterson crafts a brilliant debut as he cunningly draws us in with television and gives us the experience of radio, never keeping us from being glued to the screen.

Grade: A-

THE VAST OF NIGHT is playing at select drive-in movie theaters and is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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